As more than a million tons of trash and debris from last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan float toward the West Coast, everyone’s worried about what it will mean for the region’s beaches and public health. How will we even clean up such a mess, and who will foot the bill? From Washington to California, as a region, we are all facing this challenge together.
Ocean currents don’t care about state borders. The tsunami debris, along with sewage, runoff and everyday trash travel with the waves. The same is true for marine life. Fish and whales migrate up and down the West Coast. Ships carry invasive species from port to port. With the West Coast states linked so closely by nature, commerce and common problems, it simply makes sense for the states to work together to tackle challenges that arise – whether epic or everyday – for the benefit of our communities, economies and marine ecosystems.
Fortunately, we’re on our way to doing that. In an admirable display of cross-state collaboration, in 2006 the governors of California, Washington and Oregon announced a coordinated effort to address some of the most urgent challenges facing our shared ocean. After only six years and with very limited funding, the West Coast Governors Alliance (WCGA) has made significant progress, convening experts and stakeholders to help tackle a wide range of issues – from climate change to urban pollution runoff to renewable energy development.
At the national level, this same principle of cross-jurisdictional collaboration is embodied by the National Ocean Policy, landmark guidance put in place two years ago to coordinate the 20 agencies and 140 laws that currently govern America’s oceans in an ad hoc fashion. As evidenced by regional groups like the WCGA, the interagency and local stakeholder coordination found at the heart of the National Ocean Policy will guide us toward smarter more effective management of our coasts and oceans.
That’s heartening when massive amounts of wreckage from the Japanese disaster are headed in our direction.
It is also good news for the ocean problems we face on a regular basis. Believe it or not, the everyday garbage pollution choking our seas is an even larger problem for coastal states. In 2010 alone, about 40,000 San Diegans volunteered to remove 630,000 pounds of debris from area beaches and waterways, according to San Diego Coastkeeper. In San Francisco, approximately 1.36 million gallons of litter – enough to fill 100,000 trash bags – ends up in San Francisco Bay every year, according to preliminary results of a study by the Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association.
This trash, and especially plastic pollution, seriously harms marine life and our local economies. Each year, whales, seals, turtles, birds and fish are killed by eating or becoming entangled in plastic trash. And coastal communities are forced to pay to clean garbage off their beaches and out of storm drains, or risk flooding and tourism losses.
The WCGA has taken important steps to address ocean litter on the West Coast. Bringing together state and federal government officials, nonprofits and businesses, it is tackling problems like derelict fishing gear and reducing land-based sources of debris. This coordination especially pays off when disaster like the Japanese tsunami strikes: The states are ready and better equipped to respond than if they were working alone. With continued federal funding and support and direction from the National Ocean Policy, West Coast cooperation can do even more to protect our precious marine resources and the businesses they support. This happens through sharing of information and data, and closer communication and cooperation between players.
Efforts like these promise a brighter future for our oceans, coasts and those who depend on them – and that gives us hope even as a mountain of debris floats just beyond on shores.
Moriarty, of Solana Beach, is CEO of the Surfrider Foundation. Monroe, of San Francisco, is an attorney in the Oceans Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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